REVIEW: The School for Good Mothers, Jessamine Chan

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REVIEW

Maybe Jenna Bush has better taste in books than I thought?

I tend to ignore celebrity book clubs, but they’re becoming unavoidable–get the right celebrity to endorse your book and you could be a bestseller overnight. Oprah was the dominant literary kingmaker of the 2000s and the baton has since been passed to Reese Witherspoon. And now that Jenna Bush (yes, daughter of W.) is a Today Show host, she’s gotten on the bandwagon with her own “Read With Jenna” bookclub. Her picks have been a strange mix so far, mostly the expected fluffy book-club fare, (although some, like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, feel like an attempt to distance herself/her namesake from mainstream GOP politics as of late), but The School for Good Mothers felt like a deviation from the women’s-lit norm.

But maybe what makes Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers so good is that it stands on its own, without propping up from celebrities, Bush-apologists or not. It focuses on Frida Liu, a New York transplant in Philadelphia who leaves her one-year-old daughter Harriet alone for a few hours while dealing with work stress–along with the stress of her ex-husband, Harriet’s father, shacking up with his younger, wellness-obsessed mistress who always has opinions on how Frida raises Harriet. The police are called, and suddenly Frida is thrust into a world of social worker visits and custody hearings, culminating in her being sent to an experimental state programme–The School for Good Mothers, effectively a prison where women branded “bad” by the state are supposedly reformed.

This is a feminist dystopia that earns its Handmaid’s Tale comparison (also with some real science fiction touches, something a lot of recent feminist dystopias seem weirdly afraid of), with some excellent nuance on race and class. Frida struggles not only with the expectations placed on her by her Chinese immigrant parents, but also the chasm between the experiences of white women in the school and women of colour, branded “bad mothers” for very different things. As a supposed “model minority”, where does Frida fit in?

I also especially loved the scenes exploring the equivalent School for Good Fathers, where expectations–and punishments–are very different. It reminded me a lot of (here she goes again) Anne Helen Petersen’s excellent writing on “blue marriage” and how, even in 2022, the fear of living (and parenting) alone can keep women in abusive relationships. I’m not a parent, but I still found Chan’s exploration of gender, relationships, and the expectations placed on women to be striking, haunting, and relevant.

I’m not usually one to get emotional at books, at least not visibly so, but the ending of this actually had me getting choked up. I can’t wait to see what Chan does next – and I don’t think she’ll need a celebrity book club for a boost.

RATING: 5/5 STARS

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